We have been introducing Year 8 to a range of 19th century fiction through our Gothic unit, Christmas holiday reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and currently our ‘London Through the Pages’ unit which explores a range of texts chronologically, from Fanny Burney and Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. These units were already in place before the changes to GCSE, but we have boosted the 19th century content in response to those changes.
As I introduced the unit, some students asked about the choice of texts, so we discussed this. I explained why we chose the texts originally and how government changes can influence the curriculum. We discussed the balance between teacher choice and political regulation, the concept of a literary canon and the enjoyment of an accessible read versus the struggle of a harder read. Typing up their ideas live on the whiteboard as we summarised our class discussion, I was struck by how balanced, thoughtful and reflective the students were and felt their ideas were worth sharing.
After the recent ‘scripting’ debate I also reflected that this was an unplanned lesson – it was not on the scheme and prevented us starting on ‘Evelina’ – but student questioning evolved into an interesting and valid debate, which I now intend to plan properly and include as an introductory lesson to the unit next time, perhaps to be revisited at the end of the year to see if opinions have changed. I wondered, if my lessons were planned for me, would a more expert planner already have included this debate lesson, or would they have deemed it irrelevant to the delivery of content?
So here’s what the Year 8s had to say about studying 19th-century texts:
Arguments for studying 19th-century literature
- historical reasons – knowing more about our history is good general knowledge and it helps us understand the present
- it’s interesting to compare the present day to Victorian times, especially London as we live there
- improving our vocabulary and sentence structures, making us more adventurous
- we don’t speak or write as well these days, it could help us use more formal, sophisticated language and address the slang issue
- having knowledge of more complex language and texts helps us to be more creative ourselves in our writing
- being able to read these texts for pleasure in the future – if no-one teaches us how to read them we would never have the chance and could miss out
Arguments against studying 19th-century literature
- Society has moved on, so the views of the writers or characters may be difficult or offensive (eg. racism, sexism, homophobia)
- the vocabulary and sentence structures can prevent understanding and enjoyment
- The English language moves on: why don’t we drop old language?
- Why not learn about the modern world rather than repeating the same history & texts otherwise nothing will change. There are so many modern authors to explore who are equally talented
- Why learn words we will never use? eg. ‘beguiled by the time’
- We would like to hear more different writers from different groups or places.. These texts are written by a very small section of society. We would like to be able to relate to the writers and characters more.